Second Life: A Novel

Second Life: A Novel

by Paul Griner


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This "smart and darkly glimmering story, a hold-your-breath thriller written in finely wrought prose, and a book that will spark a hundred conversations about risk and love and the dignity" follows one woman's search for her former best friend—into the underworld and beyond (Lauren Groff, New York Times bestselling author of Fates and Furies).

Elena Kelly was a body broker or "corpse wrangler," and when she was working, she was one of the best in her field. But Elena got too ambitious—cut too many corners and too many ethical (and legal) safeguards. After running afoul of the law and medical profession, triggering a huge scandal in Louisville, Kentucky that quickly went national, she lost everything.

Now humbled and on a strict, three-year parole, she works as coroner's assistant in Danville. Though still trying to come to grips with her regret and guilt, she is unexpectedly drawn into the search for her former best friend's missing body. Elena knows what can happen to a body that goes "missing," how it can be salvaged and used indiscriminately for spare parts, and she endeavors to seek salvation in finding Lia and bringing her body home, as complete as possible. Her desperate search drags her back to the underworld of the dead and pits her against a new and nefarious corpse wrangler—one more talented and deadly than she ever was.

Pulling back the curtain on those who exist on the edge of the medical profession, the ones who remove skin and tissue and bones from the dead, for use by surgeons, medical students practicing technique, cosmetic surgeons, medical equipment companies and science labs, Second Life thrillingly and philosophically explores our obligation to protect the dead and examines what happens when we—literally—leave the land of the living.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781593766368
Publisher: Catapult
Publication date: 03/15/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Paul Griner is the author of the acclaimed novels Second Life, Collectors, and The German Woman, and the story collections Hurry Please I Want to Know and Follow Me, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick. He teaches creative writing at the University of Louisville.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Her body is missing, Mrs. Stefanini said.
What? I said, still waking up, the darkness humming around me. I shifted the phone to my other ear, thinking I’d misheard.
Lia’s body, it’s missing. Can you help, Elena? Please?
The normal question would be, How does a body go missing, but I’d been in the business long enough to know that bodies often did. Once someone died, all kinds of things could happen. After the family left, if there was family, a nurse or an attendant took the body down to the morgue on a service elevator so the public wouldn’t see it, an understandable sleight of hand. Commendable, even. No one wants to visit a sick relative and pass a body on its way out.
So, to observe niceties, the body was trundled off to the morgue in a mostly silent last walk, signed in, and left. The diener had it then, and I’d been a diener, so I knew the routines that followed. The paperwork, the cleaning of the body, the autopsy and the phone calls: to an undertaker, if one had been specified, to the coroner, if there’d been a crime, to the med school, if interns and students needed to practice intubation and catheterization. To the body brokers, if the body wasn’t claimed.
None of that for Lia, it seemed, save perhaps the body broker.
Still, I was surprised that Mrs. Stefanini had called. I hadn’t known that Lia was dead, for one thing, and I hadn’t heard from the Stefaninis for years, and the last time I had, Mrs. Stefanini herself told me never to call again.
Now she said, Can you help me find her? Her voiced sounded unnaturally loud in the dark. Please? I can’t go through this another time.
Two AM and the name on the caller ID; I almost hadn’t answered, thinking she might be drunk and angry, lashing out. She wouldn’t be the first, only the most personal, but I was glad I’d had the fortitude to answer once I heard what she wanted, and ashamed I was still making this about me. Lia. Lia was gone, which seemed impossible.
My throat thickened but I cleared it and said, Of course I’ll help, ignoring the voice in my head shouting, You’re still on probation (Lia’s voice, really, as she had always been better at warning me off my various stupidities), sitting up and gathering the covers around me, chilled despite the muggy air. I’ll do everything I can. Please, I said, grabbing a pen and paper and squinting as I turned on the light. I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to ask some questions. Is that all right?
Her exhausted voice shook, but she gave me all the details of Lia’s accident. That the car had rolled on the highway and hit a tree, that Lia had been crushed but not killed, that in the hospital they’d operated. That Lia had died anyway.
Do you know where they operated? I asked.
This was University Hospital, Mrs. Stefanini said. Sorry, Elena. I should have mentioned it. That’s why I called you. Will that make it difficult?
No, that’s okay I said, glossing over it, my stomach growing heavier, as if I’d swallowed cement. But I meant, was it her chest they operated on, or her head?
Her breathing sounded liquid now, as she imagined her daughter’s body under the bright operating room lights, the surgeons opening it up, and I remembered that she was a big crime show fan, meaning that her mental movie would be graphic. Such a small thing, really, the bits of your life you never expect to add up to anything, but now it would loom large in her mind.
Her chest, she said. Why would that matter?
It might not, I said, thinking, body parts, not wanting to go down that road but unable to stop myself from recalling the tissue recoverers, the screeners and the processors and distributors, the medical company reps and the implant surgeons I’d worked among for years. To a large but mostly secret world beyond your family and friends, once you stopped breathing, your body was a resource. That was good, really; it helped a lot of people—a walk through the burn ward was all you needed to be convinced of that—but it could go horribly wrong. Had, with Mr. Stefanini.
I said none of that. Instead, I stood and began to walk and said, The more I know, the better. It should help me narrow down my search. Was there an autopsy?
No. Not that I know of.
That’s good, I said, heading down the warm narrow hallway. My reflection in the window startled me, peering back in while I tried to see out; I turned away from the apparition on the dark glass and hurried on.
Is it good? Mrs. Stefanini said. No autopsy?
Yes, it is, I said. Did you sign any consent forms, for transplants?
I didn’t sign anything.
Okay. That’s a good thing too.
No, it isn’t.
I’m sorry? I said, stopping in the kitchen, where the mismatched clocks on the microwave and stove blinked greenly. A power outage, which I must have slept through. Was Lia’s death somehow tied to that? There was so much I didn’t know.
Mrs. Stefanini said, I mean, I didn’t sign anything because I didn’t know she was even in the hospital. The accident was a few days ago. I’m sorry if this is confusing. It’s still confusing to me.
Of course it is, I said. The wooden floor was gritty under my bare feet. I wiped my soles off on my unshaven calves and said, Don’t worry. Take your time.
No, she said, growing angry, as if I was being willfully stupid. I don’t mean confusing that way. I mean the accident and its aftermath are a mess. A complete, fucking, unadulterated, mess. There was no purse in the car, and the car wasn’t hers, and they didn’t have her name.
She was a Jane Doe?
No, not a Jane Doe, Mrs. Stefanini said, her voice cracking, the fight going out of her. When she spoke again it was nearly a whisper. They had her down as Cindy.
Paper rustled in the background and she said, Cindy Lownes.
Was she talking when she came in? Did she give them that name?
No, her boyfriend did. Belmont. Belmont Pitkin. Do you know him?
I gripped the counter, so tightly my fingertips turned white. No, I lied, and immediately regretted it. What if she found out? Well, she couldn’t have any lower an opinion of me than she already did. Still, it wasn’t a good sign, that in a crucial moment lying came so easily to me. I wanted to stop.
Was he in the car with her?
Lia took his car. Or at least we think she did. It’s confusing. She’d been living with him and they broke up and it seems Lia went back to get some of her things and took the car. For a bit, I’d lost touch with her. Her life grew…complicated. But he seems to have thought it was a new girlfriend, who he’d just had a fight with, this Cindy, so when the police called him about it, that’s the name he gave them.
Didn’t he go see her in the hospital?
They’re both blond, evidently, about the same size.
But surely, I started to say, and didn’t stop quickly enough.
Mrs. Stefanini, her voice quavering, said, It seems her face was battered.
Or, I thought, he was drunk. I headed back into the bedroom, eyes straight ahead so I wouldn’t see my ghostly self passing again in the window.
I’m sorry, I said, disoriented and at a loss, and really, what else could I say? The words around death are never quite right and never quite enough, as they don’t bring back the dead or erase the pain; it’s like trying to fill a canyon with pebbles. And when did they clear it up? I said. This confusion?
Okay, I said. So they had to switch around the names, and maybe something happened then.
Probably, she said. All of his girlfriends looked the same, I think. He gave them three or four names. She might have been listed under any of them.
The police know, I take it?
Yes. They’re looking for her.
Good. That’s good.
Is it? she said. Will they find her?
I lied again, knowing it was the right thing to do, even as I felt bad doing so. Her voice was so full of desperate hope that I didn’t want to disappoint her. They should, I said, though truthfully a missing body wouldn’t be high up on their priority list. There hadn’t been a crime, other than the stolen car, and the one who stole it was dead, so there wouldn’t be any charges.
Can you help them? she said, meaning, Can you help me?
Of course, I said. Though they might not want me to. It would help if you let the detective know I was going to ask some questions. The police don’t like to be surprised, I said, meaning, The police don’t like me.
Yes, she said. I’ll call him today. Or tomorrow, if you need some time.
No, I said, sitting on the bed again, though only the edge. I felt it would be somehow disloyal to move any deeper into it. I’m going down there now, I said.
Now? It’s two-thirty. You should sleep.
I felt a laugh bubbling up, that she’d called and woken me and now was worried about my sleep, yet thankfully I stifled it. Nerves, but it would have been hard to explain, and I doubted she’d be willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. And even if she would, I probably wouldn’t. How much pain could you cause one family before you started to despise yourself? Well, I’d passed that point long ago.
It’s okay, I said. I don’t want to more time go by. It’s been two days already?
Three, she said.
Not good, I thought, as that’s usually the outer-limit of how long anyone will hold on to a body. Okay, I said. I’ll just shower and dress and get started.
She didn’t respond and I thought maybe she’d simply hung up, which would have made sense, given what she must have been thinking, all the horrible worries about what had happened to her daughter’s body, and that was the first time it really hit me that Lia was dead. I’d heard her say it, of course, but I’d just been startled awake and hadn’t really processed it, and now as I did, I felt battered and stunned, as if a friend had struck me in the face with a brick. I bent forward until my forehead touched my bare knees and started to cry. Lia. My oldest friend. It must have been the sound of my crying that made Mrs. Stefanini go on.
Elena, she said, her voice thickening. I think she missed you these last years.
Then she did hang up, and I was incredibly grateful for her words, the kindness and the small measure of forgiveness they held, a gift of gold. I sat in the dark holding the silent phone, feeling unworthy of her forgiveness and thinking that it’s not often you get to try and balance the scales. They’d never be fully balanced—I couldn’t wipe away the past, and some crimes are simply unforgivable—but even a small weight on my side was something.
Lia, gone. Not possible, I thought again, just a horrible mistake. We were supposed to reconcile. I’d let it go too long, though it had never seemed like that, and really, I knew that if it were ever to happen, the impetus would have had to come from her. On my bureau was a picture of the two of us at the beach, tanned and smiling, our legs buried in the sand and our brown arms raised as we held our minty drinks out toward the sun. For all the years of silence between us, I’d never been able to put it away. Some day we’d be friends again, I’d been sure of it.
Now I turned the picture face down on the bed and dug my nails into my palms so hard it hurt, not wanting to fall apart; I had things to do.
The image of her in a car rolling over on the highway came to me. The sound of it, of two thousand pounds of metal slamming into the concrete, over and over, throwing off bits of plastic and metal and glass, the tremendous bang as it hit the tree followed by a silence scooped from disaster, broken only by the hiss of escaping steam and ticking, cooling metal, of other cars screeching to stops. A 9-1-1 call, people rushing to the car, an ambulance setting out, siren blaring. Too late.
She would already have been dying. Her heart had probably killed her, a half-pound weight crashing around in her body as the car rolled, still rocketing forward as her body recoiled from the blow of the air bag, tearing the delicately crucial aorta it hung suspended from like a precious red fruit. In dozens of autopsies I’d seen exactly that. That which gives you life also takes it.
I rocked on the edge of the bed, the cat up and rubbing against my legs, until the dial tone sounded, when I put the phone down and picked up the cat.
This is a good thing, I said to it. But of course it wasn’t, since Lia was dead, and I burst into tears and buried my face in the warm dark fur, sobbing. He squirmed away, scratching my arm in his haste to escape, a deep scratch from which blood welled instantly. I sucked on it to make it stop, the coppery taste filling my mouth, and thought of Lia, of Mrs. Stefanini and her last words.
Elena, I think she missed you these last years. When I replayed them in my head this time, they no longer seemed to carry the tincture of forgiveness. Instead, beginning to imagine Lia’s disordered life during that span, I wondered if they weren’t meant to apportion blame.

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